Jordan's King Hussein is hoping that the Arab summit starting in Casablanca, Morocco, today will give a boost to his joint peace effort with Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat. The first meeting of Arab heads of state since the 1982 summit in Fez, Morocco, comes at a time when King Hussein is struggling to keep alive a process he launched last February. At the time, the King and Mr. Arafat agreed to pursue together a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian question based on the concept of Israel returning occupied Arab land in return for peace.
Since then, Hussein and Arafat have tried to drum up support in a deeply divided Arab world for their efforts to reach a negotiating table. The King has enlisted the help of the United States, but his efforts have been vocally -- and at times violently -- opposed by Syria.
If the Casablanca summit ends with a supportive statement for the Hussein-Arafat initiative, that will be seen as a setback for Syria and the other hard-line states that oppose negotiations. If the summit results in ``even a mild condemnation'' of the Hussein-Arafat accord, one diplomat in the Middle East says, ``it could kill the whole process.''
The Syrians fear that Jordan and the Palestinians will eventually negotiate the fate of Israeli-occupied territory on the West Bank and in Gaza, and leave Syria with no leverage for getting back the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967.
The Syrians have kept up a steady attack in their press and in their contacts with other Arab countries against the Hussein-Arafat initiative. The Jordanians and Palestinians have said they also believe Syria has been behind the assassination of one moderate PLO member and a Jordanian diplomat who was gunned down in Turkey last month.
Syria is leading a boycott of the Casablanca summit. Neither Syria nor Lebanon, Algeria nor South Yemen, will attend. Their absence further illustrates the deep divisions among the Arabs, and limits the ability of the participants to make any bold moves, analysts in the Middle East and Washington say.
However, says one State Department source, ``the very fact that there will be a summit and that Arafat is going to be seated at that table, recognized as the leader of the Palestinians, has got to be a plus both for Hussein and for Arafat.''
Arafat is hoping that the summit will condemn the Syrian-backed attacks on Palestinian refugee camps in south Beirut. Last spring, the Syrian-supported Shiite Muslim Amal militia besieged the camps for a month in an effort to defeat forces loyal to Arafat, who were trying to secure their military control over the camps. The Amal attack failed, but Palestinian sources said that Arafat fears another assault.
The chairman has been locked in a bitter power struggle with Syrian President Hafez Assad since the PLO was driven from Lebanon by the Israeli invasion of June 1982. President Assad has cultivated the anti-Arafat PLO dissidents in Damascus and accused the PLO leader of betraying the Palestinian cause.
In an effort to bolster the Jordanians and Palestinians, the Americans issued an announcement Monday from the State Department calling on the summit to endorse the peace process. The announcement also said that the United States is prepared to meet with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation ``as soon as arrangements can be made.''
The Reagan administration has been reviewing a list of Palestinians submitted by Jordan as possible negotiating partners since last month. Jordanian officials said recently that they are anxious for the State Department to announce a date for a meeting between a US official and the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
``The Jordanians want the Americans to announce the date before the summit occurs,'' said one Western diplomat in Amman last week. ``That would at least give them some ammunition going into this summit.''
The Americans did not go as far as Jordan would have liked, as no date for the meeting has been announced so far. But the statement of support could only have been welcomed in Amman.
The list submitted to the Americans was drawn up by Arafat. A meeting with a US official, presumably Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and Asian Affairs Richard Murphy, is seen as the next step toward negotiations with Israel.
But US officials have said privately that the list poses a problem. Of the seven men on it, three are members of the PLO, and therefore, unacceptable to the US as Palestinian representatives. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has said that only two names on the list are acceptable to Israel as possible future negotiating partners. The Israelis also have said they are opposed to the US holding a meeting with a joint Jordanian-Palestinan negotiating team without Israel's participation.
The Americans last month reaffirmed their commitment to insisting on direct negotiations between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian team, and said that the American-Jordanian-Palestinian meeting would be useful only if it eventually led to direct negotiations.
The Jordanian-Palestinian position, however, is that the meeting should result in US recognition of the PLO which is viewed by the Arabs as the only representative of the Palestinians. During his visit to Washington last spring, King Hussein outlined a process that would ultimately result in negotiations for a regional settlement taking place in the context of a UN-sponsored international peace conference. Both Israel and the US are opposed to an international conference.
The most that can be hoped for from the Casablanca summit, Western diplomats in the Middle East said, was that the participants would adopt the Hussein-Arafat accord and readmit Egypt back into the Arab League. Egypt was expelled in 1979, after it signed the first Arab peace treaty with Israel.
But there is little hope that either of those dramatic acts will take place without the participation of Syria, Algeria, Lebanon, and South Yemen.
The importance of the summit has also been downgraded by the decision of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd not to attend. It was the decision of the Saudis last month to attend that ensured the summit would be held. The normally cautious Saudis could hold the key to any statements issued on the peace process, one official said. Crown Prince Abdullah will be the Saudi representative.
The basic difference between the accord reached by Hussein and Arafat and the Arab peace plan adopted at the last summit in Fez is that the Fez accord called for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The Hussein-Arafat agreement calls for a confederated Jordanian-Palestinian state on the West Bank and in Gaza.
Chedli Klibi, Arab League secrertary-general, has characterized the summit as a preparatory meeting for the full summit scheduled to take place in Riyadh in November. It is likely that Syria will also oppose that meeting.